The story of the Skylark

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1957 November 13

The author has been unable to find a photograph of the launch of SL04, perhaps because it took place at night, but this trajectory diagram shows its path. The dashed line indicates the nominal border of space. (Click to enlarge and again to return)
(Dorling (1959), figure 28)

Summary: SL04 was the fourth Skylark launched, and the first British rocket to reach space! As the previous flights had gone relatively well, this time the first university experiments were included. These were a full-scale test of the University College London 'grenade' experiment, the Imperial College 'window' (chaff) experiment and the University of Birmingham dielectric experiment.

Preparation: As with SL03, the first three attempts to launch SL04 had to be abandoned because of technical problems. However on Wednesday 13th November all went well, the countdown was successful, and launch took place at 21:22 in the evening local time. This was a moonless night, so the grenade flashes could be seen.

Flight: After a flight time of 110 seconds, SL04 crossed the nominal 100 km (62 mile) border into space. Here it continued to climb for another minute or so through the region where the sporadic E-layer of the ionosphere occurs, reaching an apogee of 420,000 feet (128 km / 79 miles). Just over a minute later, re-entry occurred, Skylark 04 having spent two and a half minutes in space.

Recovery: Impact was 107 miles (172 km) downrange, the impact point located, and parts recovered.

Result:  SL04's apogee of 128 km was some 70% greater than that estimated for SL03, and it became the first British rocket to cross the nominal 100 km boundary and reach space, a tribute to the British who designed and made it, and the Australians who launched it. The university scientists and the Royal Society must have been delighted to see their first experiments carried into space. "Skylark SL04 marked the real beginning of the British high altitude rocket programme".



launch site


Apogee km





13 Nov. 1957


Un, Raven IA


RAE, UCL, IC, Birm.

Neutral atmosphere density & wind speed (grenades & 'window'),  Ionosphere  electron concentration (rf probe)


(i) 'Britain's First Space Rocket' book: page 89 onwards
(ii) Dorling (1959), The First Six Skylark Firings, pp.32-45.
(RAE Technical Report GW530, Oct.1959) (TNA:PRO DSIR 23/27687)
(iii) Visit the London Science Museum Exhibition celebrating the 60th anniversary of the launch of SL04: 

                       New Forest Electronics Tel. +44 (0) 1425 650089                 Issue 3.66    3 May 2018